Within an hour of the first missile being launched by US warships
last Sunday, a series of crucial communications steps had been taken by
the western alliance to mark out the parameters of the forthcoming
US President George Bush addressed the nation from the White House,
declaring this to be a war in the interests of the majority of Afghan
Muslims. Within minutes, Prime Minister Tony Blair invited journalists
into Downing Street to be briefed on Britain's role, reiterating the
claim that this was a confrontation against terror, and not against the
Muslim world, as the Taliban regime in Kabul would position it.
It is around this core issue that the information war will develop. The
suggestion the Western allies are anti-Islam is so damaging to
international stability that Bush and Blair will fight to eliminate it.
The suggestion they are fighting against those whose acts tarnish
Islam's image is so enriching that Bush and Blair will do all in their
power to sustain it.
In the early days - at the time of going to press the fourth day of air
strikes was underway - Downing Street refuses to talk of a propaganda
war, but admits communicating to the British people is crucial: 'At a
time like this it is clearly important that the public can get clear,
accurate and authoritative information from government,' a Number 10
But according to an NOP survey for PRWeek, people feel they are not
getting this information. Less than two-thirds of the 1,000-strong
sample agreed the Government was being 'full and frank' in giving out
There is some succour in the data for Blair and comms director Alastair
Campbell since almost all of those polled say theywould gladly go
without information if they thought it would save lives.
NATO sources identify particular areas on which the comms battle will
focus. The operation is not officially led by NATO, though it is
comprised of alliance members and the organisation has lent the US five
AWACS aircraft so that Washington's usual supply can be dispatched to
Mark Laity, NATO spokesman and an adviser to secretary-general Lord
Robertson, says an information war is a requirement of any successful
campaign. This is not just because hearts and minds need to be won over
if support for war is to be sustained - though that is a consideration -
it is because the way wars are fought means it is often difficult to
tell who's won; in short, clear communications can make a claim of
victory more plausible.
'If you are fighting for survival, the information war is simple,' says
Laity, the former BBC reporter who joined Jamie Shea's comms team at
NATO shortly after reporting the Kosovo war in 1999. 'But we live in an
age of limited conflict where debate attaches to who has won or lost.
The information war will turn to this later on.'
But Laity, who rejects the term 'propaganda,' says the message that this
is not a war against Islam is the one from which all other aspects of
the information battle flow: 'The message we will hear every spokesman
reinforce every time from now on is that this cannot be framed as a war
against Islam. It has to be seen that there's a desire to do it in a
The implications of not forging this perception include the break-up of
the coalition, which at present houses both Pakistan and, to a lesser
extent, Saudi Arabia. They also include fuelling insurgent movements
elsewhere and possibly raising questions of allegiance among Islamic
citizens in the west.
The second area for the propaganda battle is the humanitarian aspect,
with Bush and Blair making it clear that as bombs would fall so would
Aid agency Medecin sans Frontieres described the 30,000 packages 'a
propaganda tool that is virtually useless' but, despite this, some
military PROs insist the message communicated by the fact of the aid's
existence outweighs the negative publicity attached to the claim that
the parcels are of little actual value or use to hungry refugees.
Laity accepts there was a 'PR benefit' to this, but stresses that 'to be
aware of the information impact of what you are doing does not mean that
you are only doing it for reasons of public relations'. Half a billion
dollars - the rough value of the aid effort - is more substantive than a
The propaganda war is forming around these two issues - whether the war
is on Islam or terrorism and whether the humanitarian aspect is
Spokesmen for the US-led alliance use Western news organisations as the
vehicle for their public pronouncements. Saudi-born alleged terrorist
Osama bin Laden - who this week proved his comms skill with a lengthy
statement outlining his creed - uses Arabic TV channel Al-Jazeera for
the same end. Bin Laden's last interview was to the channel, around the
time of the 1999 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Qatar-based channel launched in 1995. While the Arab world had been
fed official propaganda for years through state-run media outlets, the
idea of an independent TV station that would deliver the news without
bias was a novel one.
'We see ourselves as the CNN of the Arab world,' says a spokeswoman for
the station's London bureau. 'We are unbiased - although we have had
interviews with Osama bin Laden in the past and he chooses to give us
exclusive material during the current troubles, we have also had
interviews with (US Secretary of State) Colin Powell and (Israeli
Foreign Minister) Shimon Peres in recent weeks.' As if to back this up,
Tony Blair used Al-Jazeera as the channel to address the Arab world on
the third day of the attacks on Taleban positions.
It may be that the station cherishes its independence, but Al-Jazeera is
- especially given its viewer profile and the fact it is owned by the
state of Qatar - very much a creature of the Arab world.
Its 35 million viewers are overwhelmingly in north Africa, the
Middle-East and the Arabian peninsula, even though it is available in
the UK through Sky Digital. This means it has reach, while its claimed
editorial independence means it has credibility.
The range of content - it carries news reports from foreign bureaux in
as many places as even the most conscientious of UK newspapers' foreign
desks - lends it the sort of believability that has clearly made it a
'must-be-on' outlet for both sides of the conflict.
Despite this, its staff deny it is used as a propaganda tool for Islamic
extremists. They insist Al-Jazeera will become more important as the war
progresses, and hark back to veteran reporter Peter Arnett's work for
CNN in Baghdad during the Gulf War as the benchmark to aim for.
For communicators in Kabul, Washington and London, this is the outlet to